One girl, a close friend of mine and an aspiring rabbi, politely told the MKs that she does not feel a strong connection to Israel because she cannot practice Judaism in the way that is correct for her. This was very confusing for most, if not all, of the MKs, but resonated to a degree with even the most traditionally observant American student.
When trying to explain this concept to the puzzled MKs, her first example was the Kotel: Praying wrapped in a tallit is as much a part of her Judaism as it is blasphemy in the eyes of others. She feels silenced and as if she is a second-class Jew. The disagreement over how women pray at the Kotel epitomizes her belief that not all Jews can find meaningful Jewish life in the place that she was always taught to view as her homeland.
One year and dozens of arrests later, this issue is now center stage. Sharanksy’s proposal is a positive – and overdue – first step in addressing religious pluralism in Israel, arguably the biggest wedge between Israel and Diaspora Jews. The court ruling that there is no legal justification to arresting women praying at the Kotel is a second step; and the prayer this last weekend, of women wearing tallit and tefillin is an additional meaningful and touching step.
I understand that as an American it is not my place to dictate Israeli domestic politics. However, the Kotel is not a “private home”, or even a national monument: It is a symbol of thousands of years of Jewish longing and a place of pilgrimage belonging to Jews everywhere. It is holy to all Jews, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Reform or secular.
At the end of the day, we are all Jews
I can relate to the MKs' confusion regarding the massive discrepancies between American and Israeli Judaism. When I lived in Israel, I was initially confused and constantly needed to explain my unfamiliar brand of Judaism to my Israeli friends. Although I am not Orthodox, Judaism is the most essential part of my identity and I consider myself very religious. I rarely miss Shabbat services, but sometimes go to a bar after Shabbat dinner. I refuse to allow non-kosher meat in my kitchen, but will eat vegetarian Chinese take-out on disposable plates.
No one has the right to tell me I’m not Jewish. It may be easy for to the haredi and Orthodox public to claim that liberal Jews are not actually Jewish from its isolated “private home for haredi Jews”, as some of its members see it. However, the 1,714,000 million Reform American Jews, 1,297,000 Conservative American Jews and more than a million other American Jews who do not associate themselves with a specific denomination, some of whom are Israel’s most dedicated advocates and financial backers, most certainly disagree.
Judaism, like anything else, changes over time. Moreover, while most Orthodox Jews may also not believe that women should wear a tallit or tefillin, many also understand that Judaism is not a monolith. They too think it is outrageous that the Jewish state places sharp limitations on freedom of worship.
The Women of the Wall and their supporters do not envision a day when all women will wear a tallit or when everyone will be required to pray in a mixed-gender setting. Instead, their humble aim is to achieve what the most Orthodox Jews already have: An ability to pray to God in sync with their religious beliefs and reflective of their values.
I hope that when I return to Israel, and it will happen soon, I will not need to attend my Rosh Chodesh prayers with the Women of the Wall, with whom I prayed in the past, surrounded by police officers to protect me; simply because the Women of the Wall will no longer need to exist in its current capacity.
At the end of the day, even if we are divided on certain issues, we are all Jews. The compromise regarding the Western Wall can and should be a first step in our joint efforts to advance Jewish pluralism in Israel.
Erica Shaps, a Conservative Jew, writes for the Huffington Post and studies at Brandeis University